Patti Smith: Still high on rebellion

She calls herself a reluctant star and, if life had gone to plan, Smith would be living in retirement making art. But George W Bush has raised her hackles and the intellectuals' rock star is back with an album of heartfelt protest songs. Here, she talks to David Usborne about America at war, her Arctic explorer heroes - and why she doesn't brush her hair
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It is hard to find one wisp of pretension in Patti Smith. You might try to argue that her dogged attachment to her unkempt, ragged appearance - her hair is not only uncombed today, it looks positively matted - must be some kind of statement. But even that would be unfair. She is what she is - which is what she has been more or less since she first burst on to the New York underground punk scene 30-odd years ago.

Sitting across from her West Village home in her bolt-hole and place to make art, an cluttered shopfront with an anti-war poster on its glass door, Smith laughs when we discuss her appearance. "If you had done an interview with me in 1972, I might be dressed just about the same," she says. That is in denims and a long black jacket with smudges of white stain on its sleeves. As for the languid, greying locks, she notes, "I didn't like combing my hair when I was six, at 16, and I probably won't like combing my hair when I am 60." You can't be more honest than that.

Fans of Smith will tell you that there has always been the same appeal in her music. And in so far as she is ready to brag about anything - and she does just a little, especially about her new album, which comes out next month - Smith will confirm that this is true. There is nothing phoney, nothing opportunistic, nothing commercial about this artist. In those three decades she has recorded sparingly. This will be only her ninth album. When she does deliver new songs, it is because she has something to say.

This is a luxury affordable only to someone who is as unmoved by the promise of prolific fame as with that of prolific wealth. "I just don't believe in putting out just a bunch of songs on a record," she explains, perched on a shabby, white-sheet-draped sofa in the shop-cum-studio. "I am not career driven. I have absolutely no concern about career."

You take this on face value - something you'd be unlikely to do if it came from almost anyone else in the entertainment world - because it is clear that Smith really means it. She is a rare being on the music scene - a truly intellectual performer. When she is not making records or touring with her band, she is studying or doing her art. (An exhibition of her life's work, including an eerie series of silk-screens of the skeletal remains of the destroyed Twin Towers of lower Manhattan is touring European galleries this year.) And, as she points out many times, she also does the other thing that is important to her: she works at being a mother.

That is what she thought she was retiring to in 1980, when Smith, now 57, essentially disappeared from the music scene. She moved with her now-late husband, Fred Smith, formerly of the band MC5, to the suburbs of Detroit and remained there out of her fans' reach to raise her two children. Her span of 1970s fame, generated by records that included Horses , Radio Ethiopia and, her most successful, Easter, which included the collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, "Because the Night", seemed to her to have reached its natural end. "I thought I was going to be doing my laundry and the things that one does."

But something, as Smith now recognises, has always eventually called her back to sing and to perform. She is, she admits with some coyness, a "reluctant rock star". "I withdraw from it and then I come back and then I withdraw from it again. It's like being called back to duty. In my mind I think of my contribution to rock'n'roll has always been for me like military duty. Being called back to duty. I have always felt like that. This is sort of how I feel, that I am always somehow recruited again."

It was in 1988 that Smith re-emerged from her self-imposed exile with what she thought would be a one-off album - not in any sense a come-back - called Dream of Life, co-written throughout with her husband. Then at the end of 1994, she suffered the double grief of losing both Fred and one of her brothers to heart failure. She admits that she returned to performing some time after almost as way to emerge from her own mourning. In 1996, she and her band gave us a new album Gone Again, dedicated to Fred. And in the months before its release she opened for Bob Dylan, an idol since childhood, on a US tour. The Dylan tour marked the first time that Smith had performed live for more than 16 years.

Every Smith album has come with its own story. "Records for me are a long organic process. I like to think that each one has its own experience, almost like a movie. Usually, our records are the result of my studies, the things I am talking about at the time, human relations and the political climate."

The new work, Trampin, a characteristic blend of sounds from track to track, ranging from soft, almost lullaby ballad to something like country to hard, three-chord rock, all complete with Smith's intense flow of poetic lyrics, is no exception. Things have been bothering Smith recently (think George Bush, above all), but there is also a more mercantile aspect to the album to take note of. It marks her first work with the Columbia label of Sony Music. It is thus her first record made outside Arista and beyond the gaze of Clive Davis, the legendary nurturer of talent, who spotted Smith back in the early 1970s when she was playing at the former cradle of New York punk in the Bowery, CBGB's.

And Columbia allowed her to do something else new too. Trampin, which includes four largely improvised tracks that were recorded almost entirely live in a Lower East Side studio and one that features her 16-year-old daughter, Jesse, on keyboard, was self-produced by Smith and her band-members. This was a gamble by Columbia, but likely a savvy one, because it pays homage to what Smith is all about. She wanted the album to be the real thing. And if she and her cohorts can master the technical challenges of making the record - they did have an engineer and a mixer, both of their choice - then why not let her do it? Purists complain that production technique has almost submerged artistry in most of the music we hear now. Not with this record. There is no overdubbing of extraneous, electronic sounds or effects. This is just the music and the poetry. Of course you may not like it, but that is what you get. And if you have not yet embraced the world of CDs, Trampin will be available on vinyl also.

The vinyl thing is a bit of a gimmick, of course. But that also is an apt tribute to Smith, who freely admits to living to some degree in the 1970s. She was a renegade then and she still likes to think of herself that way. "Where is Patti Smith now?" she asks. "Right where she always was, I think, outside society." By that, she means above all, that she remains determinedly not a "pop artist". "I have never been a pop artist. In the best way of a pop artist or the worst way of a pop artist, I just don't fit in. The best way is when I think of the great pop artists like Warhol or REM, in that they are popular. Theirs is high work that also takes the public consciousness. Smokey Robinson is in that area too. But that is not my calling."

Yet, Smith is no dinosaur. She has changed in some important ways. "I think the difference is that when I recorded Horses, I perceived who I was singing to as this clear minority. I wrote songs for a minority of people who were disenfranchised. I wasn't really addressing an abstract collective, I was addressing likeminded people. But now, I think, in this album, my concerns are more universal. It might be that the same amount of people will listen or that no one will listen, but the people I am addressing are hopefully everyman. I am an evolved human being. That's the difference. If I am writing a poem, I am not deeply concerned with who's reading it. Sometimes when I do certain work, I just hope that God will hear it. But this is a record that really we did for the people, so I hope that the people will like it."

Above all, she is crossing her fingers that Americans listen to it. It is for that reason that, while in the past Smith has tended to concentrate most of her touring gigs in Europe where she has always had a steadfast following, she has persuaded Columbia that the Trampin tour should mostly be spent in her own country. Because the USA is mostly what this record is about. You understand this from the opening song, "Jubilee", a paean to the land she loves. It begins: "Oh glad day to celebrate/'Neath the cloudless sky/Air so sweet/Water pure/ Fields ripe with rye." But the mood soon shifts. "Oh my land/What be troubling/Oh my land/What be troubling/What be troubling/What be troubling you."

The trouble, she suggests, began on that September morning of 2001 when she had put Jesse on to a bus to school and had just drifted back to sleep in the arms of her companion of some years, the guitarist Oliver Ray. "I heard the screaming sound, which was the plane * going over our house. It was this scream. First, we ran to make sure Jesse was alright. The next thing was just the horror of thinking of all those people. But the next thought, almost within 20 minutes, was to start worrying about what we were going to do with our retaliation. How was this going to affect the people of Afghanistan? How were we going to react to this? That was immediately part of my horror."

Smith says you "could almost bet that the Bush administration would do what it did". First there was Afghanistan and then Iraq. All of which was distressing enough for Smith, who, with Ray, joined anti-war demonstrations whenever she could, both in Europe and New York. But "we just couldn't get people to listen". The protests in the US were measly, certainly compared to the march of millions she joined in Paris. One march in New York fizzled out when the city denied it the proper permits. "It was very disappointing to me. Most disappointing was the lack of voice against what was happening here. I was really shocked and dismayed. I blame the media and, yes, even the artists. We really should know better, we know more now. But the American consciousness became instantly so nationalistic and the Bush administration played into that sense of nationalism and fear."

Equally upsetting, she says, was the speed with which even the Democrats in Washington succumbed to the new climate of retribution. "The Democrats buckled, even Hillary Clinton buckled and I know she didn't really want what Bush was asking."

This frustration and disappointment finds voice not just in "Jubilee" but in other tracks of the album, most notably "Radio Baghdad", which opens with sounds - recorded by a journalist friend in Iraq - of boys playing football in the city and gathers to decry the destruction rained upon the land by her own country. "Shock and awe/Shock and awe/Like some, some/Imagined warrior production/21st century/No chivalry involved/No Bushido." It also informed another track, "Ghandi".

"It asks the people to wake from their sleeping and gather their numbers," she explains. "The thing I learnt from Ghandi is the absolute truth in the power of our collective unity. People right now, if they want the Bush administration ousted, they have to gather and get them out. They can't just sit around complaining about it, they have to register to vote and then vote and see that he is overturned." Smith intends to use her touring dates in the US to urge her fans to at least register to vote, whatever party it is they root for (although you can be sure there won't be too many Republicans at a Patti Smith concert), and the forms that people need to fill in will be available at manned desks at every venue.

Already, the record seems to have given her a measure of release. For one, she likes the way it has turned out very much. (Here comes the brief, but quite excusable brag.) "I am really proud of the record, because I feel that lyrically it might be my best. I couldn't sing any better than I sang on it. And the unity that I felt with the band is so great, especially when you think there are almost four cuts that are basically live." "Radio Baghdad", she says, was essentially laid down with only two takes.

Smith, though, is beginning to think that the political atmosphere in the US is already changing without any help from her. "I think that things will change now because people will see the truth of how the Bush administration has put this country into such a terrible position in so many difference ways - economically, environmentally and politically. I think there will be a turnover. I think it's very possible that Bush will lose the election."

Smith's career may have been fragmented - interrupted over the decades by the commitment of child-rearing, by her painting and her love of studying and writing - but there is no mystery as to why she has reported back to duty once more with this album. "I have enlisted, because I think it's important to say something about our present climate."

And after that, when the Trampin tour is done? Well, she says she is reading voraciously again, mostly about the explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic at the turn of the last century. People like Shackleton and Wegner. When she is done learning about them, she means to start painting their adventures in some fashion or another. She envisions canvases of white - light on snow. It is hard to see a new record emerging from so frigid a topic. But maybe Bush will win again in November and maybe he will do something else that will drive Smith and her band to make more music still.

Patti Smith gallops on to the scene

By Simmy Richman

Even now, nearly 30 years on, it's impossible to measure the full impact of Patti Smith's 1975 debut album Horses. Over the course of 12 songs and with its striking cover image, Smith somehow brought the worlds of art, music, fashion and feminist politics into the modern era. Before Horses, Smith was a bohemian writer/ poet who dreamt of entering the rock'n'roll arena. With Horses, she didn't so much enter it as tear down the barricades forever.

It's worth remembering that Smith's screaming, angry, heartfelt and emotional poetry-set-to-music was released a couple of years before the phrase punk rock had been invented. Kick-starting the New York art-rock scene that would later spawn bands such as Television, Blondie and Talking Heads, Smith was a cult performer even before Horses hit the streets. Bob Dylan famously attended one of her shows - the musical equivalent of a visit from the Pope.

Back in 1975, female artists were expected to fit loosely into three camps: the folkie; the blues shouter; and the motorbike chick. Both on the record and its cover - shot by Smith's sometime lover, the then-unknown Robert Mapplethorpe - Smith attempted to embody the artists she loved: Charles Baudelaire, Frank Sinatra and Keith Richards.

Clive Davis, the head Smith's label Arista Records, hated the image. Smith had not brushed her hair, wore no make-up and was dressed like a man. Davis was also desperate to airbrush the hair on Smith's upper lip. "I told them that Mapplethorpe was an artist and he doesn't let anyone touch his pictures," Smith remembers.

Camille Paglia, the feminist writer, says: "It was the most electrifying image I'd ever seen of a woman of my generation. The cover immediately went up on my living-room wall, as if it were a holy icon. It symbolised for me not only women's new liberation but the fusion of high art and popular culture."

And the music wasn't bad, either.

Patti Smith will be in concert at ULU, London WC1, on 17 March and performing poetry at St Giles in the Fields, London WC2, on 18 March, for tickets call Way Ahead, tel: 020 7403 3331 or Stargreen, tel: 020 7734 8932. Her new album, 'Trampin', will be released on 19 April